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Video 46 Suckler herd health planning


Herd health planning is certainly something more suckler farmers could engage with. With poor margins, this is somewhere where we can control profit inside the farm gate.

For a start with any plan, we need to set some goals. We talk about not being able to manage what we can’t measure. So what metrics can we use in suckler systems to allow us to benchmark the investment and time required to carry out a herd health plan? These should never be static documents but evolving plans that will really benefit from a multidisciplinary approach.

Your vet might be one component but there are many other advisors that you should leverage off and seek their advice.

The farmer is the pilot and must be invested in the process or it simply will fail. With a very high-quality product being produced on beef farms I feel good herd health plans should be something farmers may be incentivized to carry out.

They won’t work as tick-box exercises that don’t return economically to the farm gate profit. Genetics will play a role in this. There have many discussions about genetics but we must focus on what the data is telling us regards the ideal cow.



Set out your targets

In suckler systems we are trying to maximize efficiency of calves produced each year. This is why our target of (0.95) calves per cow per year is a good starting point. Then we want to wean a maximum body weight per cow on the farm.

These two metrics are great starting points and cover so much of what we are trying to achieve.

For this to work, we must maximize fertility and a 365-day calving interval. We need to then look at what factors ensure we lower mortality and allow the maximum number of calves weaned as early as possible.

With the system we can then look at measuring things like calf mortality and disease issue’s. A well thought out nutritional plan is essential where inputs are giving a return on investment.

With grass being a huge competitive advantage as cheap available feed we must do better here to reap the returns.

Making good forage for the winter period is also key for suckler farms. Managing the BCS of your cows during the yearly cycle is key to getting returns (if the market allows) on good planning.

So here are some areas where herd health planning must focus.


We must maximize calves per cow per year in a short breeding window of 9 weeks. Genetics will play a role where we constantly look at breeding for fertility. More beef farms need to utilize AI to improve the genetic potential of the herd. Is this something we should be doing routinely with our replacement heifers.

With so many farms dependant on stock bulls, by focusing on bull power (numbers) and bull fertility testing we can make quick returns here.

Like all aspects of healthy herds, nutrition will play a key role in good fertility. Dig into your numbers and see where improvements can be made

Calf health

Just before we get calves on the ground we must make sure the farm has no issues with abortion or stillbirths. Between early pregnancy scanning and calving, what are our losses? Then focus on feeding cows close up to calving to ensure good quality colostrum. Again genetics plays an important role here with calving ease and milky cows being the order of the day.

What issues are you seeing with calf health? Focus in on pneumonia control and preventing calf scour problems. Losses must be written down, diagnostics, and post mortems are key to building a picture of what issue we are facing.

Calf scours and pneumonia vaccines make sense when used correctly to bolster immunity.


We can make this straight forward by firstly focusing on BCS (body condition) across our herd at key times before calving, breeding, and after weaning. With good grass management and high-quality forage, we can then bridge the gap with meal where needed.

Ensure all minerals are balanced for your herd. Look at what minerals are needed and when. Focus closely on the dry cow/ freshly calved cow. Then times like breeding and in grazing youngstock to ensure optimal performance.

Weaning time

This is a critical event in the suckler herd. Good weaning management makes all the difference. Manage any parasites before weaning and look at ensuring all relevant vaccination is carried out.

Phased low-stress weaning works well and avoids big stressful events during this time. When selling weanlings allow time between weaning and sale. If housing weanlings focus on accommodation, space, and plenty of fresh air.

Any routine procedures like dehorning and castration start using pain killers as standard.

Get those weanlings eating more concentrates, so when weaning occurs there young rumen makes a smooth transition.


For many grass-based systems, parasites are a big challenge. We should use more diagnostics to track worms like using FEC (fecal egg counts). Get good bang for your buck with any prophylactic doses to control parasites. Manage coccidiosis and then worms.

Have a clear plan for lungworm control around or before weaning.

Aim for the minimal amount of dosing for your 2nd grazers and cows should not need worm dosing.

With mange and lice a growing concern at housing. Clip tails and backs of cattle, allow for space and plenty of fresh air. One lice dose should cover winter housing

Cattle don’t develop immunity to fluke so know your farm’s risk.

Get a handle on liver fluke by looking at any factory reports from livers in cull cows.

Weigh for success

No matter what way we look at this system weight gain done well means more profitability. Start weighing cattle to review your performance and set a target for daily live weight gain. With more engagement needed with schemes like BEEP which closes on the 15th of May.


Rely on some testing to see what is causing issues in calf health and any other health issues. Managing a closed herd makes infectious disease control easier.

When buying in stock be very mindful of disease and look for some information on the health status of the herd of origin. Have a one-page biosecurity plan that clearly sets out how you manage disease spread into and on your farm.

Those selling replacements or bulls need to think about adding value to your stock with some infectious disease screening. Johnes negative herds are where we must aim to be. What is your IBR status this will be important in future national eradication programs. Is your farm liver fluke free, we need to start seeing more value in this type of information when selling and buying stock.

We need to consider why animals die, particularly where pneumonia is a concern. Post mortems can give us valuable lessons when they are done correctly.


With seasonal suckler systems, herd health can be broken down into a couple of key visits each year.

At winter housing to plan out feeding and health planning. Look forward to calving and see what minerals and vaccines may be required. Review any issues form the last visit and parasite control. The greatest impact you can have on calf health is feeding your cow to ensure the highest quality colostrum possible.

With an uncertain market place, there is an opportunity to really focus on the health status of our national beef herd. Where margins may be eroded away should our focus be on high-quality beef with minimal antibiotics, the highest standard of health, and welfare.


Thought for the day

Much of what happens around us is out of our control. Focus on what you can control.

Huge thanks to Nettex, Progiene and Rumenco for their support in doing #50in50 for more information click here https://www.rumenco.co.uk/products/beef


Happy safe farming

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